Have you ever wondered why the USA is a global superpower? Are you intrigued about how Europe is the most prosperous area on the planet? Or why Putin is so obsessed with Crimea?
Well, Prisoners of Geography is the book for you.
It delves into the world of geopolitics and explains how the constraints of geography influence politics and the events we see across the globe.
It’s a fascinating book and one that will leave much more informed about the world. It was an illuminating for me and I found myself constantly nodding with what Tim Marshall had written.
A lot of it is obvious, it’s just that we have never really thought about it deeply. Geography has a much deeper impact on things than we think.
After all, there is a reason why no one lives in the Arctic and Antarctic and why they are not nations. Quite simply, they are not hospitable to human life and far away from other countries making trade a logistical nightmare.
Prisoners of Geography
Takeaway 1 – Access to both oceans make America a superpower
It’s easy to think America has always been a superpower. But, this has only been the case in recent times. Before the start of the Second World War, America wasn’t a major player on the world scene.
It was only once the war had ended that America assumed the position which it holds today, that of a global superpower.
We may think this is done to their military might, and that does play a part, but there is another reason. Primarily, it comes down to the geography of the country.
America is blessed. Not only does it have access to both major oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, but it is easily the biggest power on its own continent.
Canada is not much of a threat to the north, while Mexico is not big enough to challenge it from the south.
Then there is the nature of America itself. It’s a huge landmass, it would be near impossible for a foreign power to invade and conquer it. Not only would they have to navigate America’s varied terrain, which includes swamplands, mountain ranges and deserts, but they would also have to deal with the American people and the plethora of guns in the country.
What’s interesting is the history of the United States. If things had gone differently, it may not have been the power it is today. Louisiana was bought for $15 million in 1803 from France. A huge landmass which gave them control over the greatest inland water transport route in the world, the Mississippi.
The Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848 saw America gain control of California, New Mexico among others, the map of America looked to similar to how it does today.
This gave America unfettered access to both major oceans, which provided numerous benefits. Not only could they trade with the West and the East, but they could assert control in these regions too.
The reality is that America is in the perfect spot to be a global superpower. Its location, the landscape of the country and the lack of a threat on its doorstep are all reasons why America is the superpower we recognise today.
Takeaway 2 – A favourable climate has led to Europe prospering
If America was blessed with the right set of circumstances to become a global superpower, Europe is not far behind.
Once again, location has played a key role in this. Although not as lucky as the United States to have access to two major oceans, Europe still has a lot going for it.
The climate, which is fed by the Gulf Stream, has just the right amount of rainfall to grow crops and the right type of soil for them to grow in.
There’s a reason the industrial revolution occurred in Europe, it’s because the climate and the topography of the landscape are ideal for trade and settlements.
Yes, there are the Alps and the rivers can flood from time to time, but compared to other places around the globe, it’s very genteel.
The flat rivers and lack of harsh landscapes meant trade between nations was easy and led to the development of rich nations, such in the north of Europe such as Britain, France, Netherlands and Germany.
The ease of trade within the nations is what has led to the European Union’s single market, which is the biggest and most prosperous trading bloc in the world.
However, even within Europe, there are discrepancies and a lot of this is down to geography.
Spain suffers because of its location in Europe. Nestled away in the southwest corner, it is a big landmass that has short rivers and short coastal plains. The central plains are mountainous and hard to navigate, while the Pyrenees present a huge barrier to passage into France.
Plus, markets on the other side of the Mediterranean are in developing countries and not on the same level as those in the rest of Europe.
Greece suffers a similar fate. With steep cliffs along the coastline presenting a challenge for anyone wanting to develop agriculture as there are minimal coastal plains.
While the rivers inland feature more steep cliffs and are not long enough to be conducive to trade. The other issue is that Athens, the capital, is located in the south of the country, away from the rest of Europe.
This means Greece relies on trade through the Aegean sea with less affluent neighbours. Geography has been a blessing for Europe, but there are still some places where it’s a curse.
Takeaway 3 – Geography determines more than we realise
It seems an obvious thing to say, but geography impacts on a country’s ability to be a big player in global politics more than we realise.
As we have seen America and Europe owe their status as big players to their location on the map and the favourable conditions they find themselves in.
The same cannot be said of Australia. Although it is of a similar size to the United States, it has nowhere near the same influence.
This is down to the landscape of Australia itself. Despite being a huge continent, the majority of it is uninhabited. Only 23 million people live there, compared to 327 million in America, and most of those 23 million people live by the coast.
Australia has not been blessed in the same way as America has. It has been dealt a poorer hand and although it’s not an also-ran on the world stage, the inability to settle the interior due to the intense and unforgiving nature of the landscape means it can never wield the influence America does on the world stage.
This is one of the reasons Russia invaded Crimea. For all the landmass it has, it lacks access to a warm-weather port following the breakup of the Soviet Union. This need is what necessitated their annexation of the Ukrainian territory in 2014.
Geography is arguably the most important factor in determining whether a country or continent, will be a major player on the world scene.
We may think it’s down to economies, but they can improve and implode. What doesn’t change, without invading someone else’s land, is geography.
If you’re dealt a poor hand, you’re stuck with it. In the end, geopolitics, funnily enough, comes down to geography.
Prisoners of Geography review
This Prisoners of Geography summary has looked at how geography has impacted the world we live in today. This is the primary reason to read the book.
The subtleties of geography are often lost in the discussions around geopolitics, which is ironic. However, once you read this book, the role of geography becomes clear.
Countries who are blessed when it comes to their geography such as Britain and the USA have prospered, while those that are constrained such as Russia, have struggled.
I had never thought of the world this way until I read the book. Once I did, it was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. The world we see today suddenly began to make much more sense.
In these times of uncertainty, it’s important to try and understand the world as much as we can.
Reading Prisoners of Geography will provide you with much more clarity about the world and how it might change in the near future.
Who should read Prisoners of Geography?
Anyone that has an interest in geography of politics will enjoy this book. It’s a fascinating and illuminating read.
Likewise, if you’re a history buff, Prisoners of Geography is worth reading. It helps to make sense of why countries have risen and fallen and which ones may prosper or suffer in the future.
The general reader will get a lot out of the book too. Unless you really aren’t interested in geography or politics, you’ll enjoy this book!